What we learned from Michael Russell's Brexit speech in France

In a devolved administration, there aren't always opportunities for foreign travel, with most ministerial minds on local matters.

Michael Russell says the Scottish Government has been working to minimise the damage caused by Brexit

However, Brexit Minister Michael Russell was able to sample the delights of Paris at a meeting of business leaders in the French capital.

As the Minister responsible for how the devolved government responds to the UK Government’s Brexit negotiations, there was only one thing on the agenda for Mr Russell.

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We look at what he said, what he left unsaid, and what it all means for Scotland.

A pitch to the EU?

No matter how much the Government says that preparations are going well and they are moving towards agreement, there remains the distinct possibility that the UK will leave the EU without a deal.

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Michael Russell: Scotland and France must maintain '˜Auld Alliance'

Despite Foreign Policy being reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government has been keen to project a separate outlook to the European Union, even as Britain as a whole is set to leave.

Mr Russell made as much clear in his speech, contrasting the styles of the two governments and telling the audience: “The Scottish Government has been consistent in its advocacy of the Single Market and Customs Union position for the last two years and it is a position that now commands wide support in the UK and indeed probably in the UK Parliament as well.”

While his audience was technically business leaders, it was clear that his speech was aimed beyond them to any French or indeed EU politicians or officials who the Scottish Government want to persuade can work with them even if Theresa May’s administration remains intransigent.

Will it work?

Mr Russell was clear to stress the ties between Scotland and France, citing a number of statistics showing the strength of the two countries’ economic partnership.

It is unlikely that the MSPs warm words are enough to make EU leaders forget that Scotland remains part of the UK and it is with the latter Government that they must negotiate with.

However, it is clear that the SNP Government is keen to place on record that they can still work with EU even within the constitutional and diplomatic confines of devolution.

He told them: “We are also opening government offices in key European cities. Our Dublin and Berlin offices have already opened.

“Our Brussels office has been expanded as has our London presence. And we will formally open a new office in Paris early in the next year – building on the success of Scotland Development International’s existing presence there.

“In doing that, we are making it clear that Scotland remains an open, outward-looking, internationalist country.”

The Elephant in the room

It wouldn’t be a speech by an SNP Government minister without having to check it for mentions of the party’s core reason for being – independence.

There was nothing obvious in Michael Russell’s speech to a foreign audience that belied any immediate plans to seek allies for a new independence campaign.

However the speech did set out the opposition of Scottish voters to Brexit at the original referendum, something the SNP has used as the basis for demanding the mandate to call another vote on independence.

A Scottish referendum based on ‘Scotland in the EU’ might be politically expedient for the SNP, but it is diplomatically difficult.

There was much made in the original referendum about the potential difficulties in a newly independent Scotland joining the European Union.

Those arguments remain live even as Scotland enjoys relative constitutional peace after two referendums in as many years.

Perhaps the most significant portion of the speech was when Mr Russell said: “We welcome the opportunities for international co-operation that the EU brings.

“For us, there’s something highly appealing about the principle of 28 independent countries working together to promote peace and prosperity no matter how hard that can be.”

It might not have been made clear, but the implication from Mr Russell remains that he believes Scotland could and should be another one of those independent countries soon.

And that segment, even in isolation, is one of the reasons why this was a speech of some significance.